Caleb Johnson: from Elijah Hooker to “American Idol”

Caleb Johnson, left, with Elijah Hooker. Photo by Carrie Turner.
Caleb Johnson, left, with Elijah Hooker. Photo by Carrie Turner.

As local rocker/American Idol contestant Caleb Johnson readies for his hometown parade this Saturday, we wanted to revisit his pre-Idol turn as as a singer-songwriter and band leader with all the makings of a star. At the time, Johnson and his band mates in Elijah Hooker were playing album release shows at Emerald Lounge and The Lab. The review got 143 views — evidence of a growing fan base, but not exactly widespread acclaim.

The thing is, Johnson didn’t (and doesn’t) need Idol or any talent show to prove to anyone that he can sing the hell out of pretty much any song that crosses his path. Now the world knows what he can do with a Steve Tyler ballad, an ’80s slow dance, an Adelle belter and a Rolling Stones duet (he totally carried “Beast of Burden,” by the way). Long before Keith Urban was waxing fanboy over Johnson’s gritty powerhouse vocals, the local musician was tearing up songs of his own design (see below).

Of course we’re thrilled that Johnson gets his parade and the hometown welcome that he deserves. (We happen to think that all of our local musicians, artists, writers, poets, dancers, etc. are downright heroic.) But this writer’s kind of sad that Johnson’s success likely spells the end of his original rock band — apparently all top 12 contestants sign contracts with the TV show’s 19 Entertainment. So, that spells the potential for big earnings but probably very little creative control. Read more about Idol contracts here.

Should Johnson have the option take his fame and parlay it into a career as a singer-songwriter, hopefully he’ll jump at the opportunity. After all, Asheville’s long known that he’s an artist who has the pipes and the skill set to craft what could be the next “Beast of Burden.”

 

Originally published on Jun 1, 2013:

SoundTrack web extra: Elijah Hooker

Elijah Hooker is the name of the band, not the band’s namesake. And not its front man, though should the local rock quintet make a name for itself beyond Western N.C., it’s likely that vocalist Caleb Johnson will be alternately known as Elijah Hooker (like how Darius Rucker, despite his turn to country, is still referred to as “Hootie”).

Elijah Hooker has just completed 10-song, self-titled debut. And it’s a memorable first impression: The brightness and swift acceleration are felt succinctly on the lead track, “Happiest Man.” It’s a rocket launch of keys and guitars swirling tornado-like above muscular drums and bass. And Johnson’s voice soars through the melee, in complete control but also pushing at the boundaries of control. Because this is a band that can do both — loose the chaos and reign it in, gun the engine and big the curves, release the kraken and dominate the battle.

“Slaves to Freedom” borrows from ‘80s metal (especially Josh Sawyer’s particularly searing guitar solo at the 1.45 minute mark). There’s a political bent to the lyrics: “Give your freedom to feel safe at night. Give up liberty without a fight,” sings Johnson. His vocal is a warm rasp in his lower register, but he maintains power into the far edge of his wail.

“Black Mountain Fog” recalls vintage Southern rock — Allman Brothers’ “Sweet Melissa” or Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See.” There’s that kind of intensity paired with layered instrumentation and a slow-but-insistent beat. Brian Turner’s keys parts are pitch-perfect ‘70s, as is the cool keening of Sawyer’s guitar work. But the thing about Southern rock of this vintage is that while it’s always of-an-era, it never sounds retro. The tried-and-trueness of the sound feels at home in 2013. And when the band breaks into a riotous boogie-woogie in the final minute, the song explodes into a new level. It’s easy to imagine Johnson dancing around his mic stand and Turner kicking away the piano bench a la Jerry Lee Lewis.

“On My Way” also takes its cues from ‘70s rock, Southern rock and hair metal, too. Here, the keyboard shines through the clamor of guitars and drums. The song is also a great example of how sturdy a rhythm section Frank Skulski (drums) and Wade Wilson (bass) make. Together they provide an unshakable foundation that often melts into the fabric of the song, allowing for guitar, keyboard and vocal explorations. But there are also moments (more than a few) when Skulski and Wilson’s particular talents make their way to the forefront.

There’s a lot of nimble-fingered guitar, thundering vocals and bristling electricity — “Midnight Sun” and “Road to Nowhere” are examples. “Eye of the Witch” is more metal, grinding and clanking through its paces. It’s less about melody and more about the full-on power of its aggressive delivery. And final track “Dogma” falls somewhere in between. It’s dark and heavy, but there’s also a dramatic (almost cinematic) build of melody under the guitar-and-drum pummel.

Returning from the abyss, Johnson sings, “Shine a light and we’ll burn tonight ‘cause we all die alone,” on “Shine On,” a song that showcases both his vocal range and an apt rock ‘n’ roll credo.

 

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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